Word Crimes

by Mike Wells

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I have to admit to being slightly ol’ school. Some unkind people might call me daggy. But let’s not go there. I like my 80’s music. There, I’ve said it!

Now, to get to the point, I happily noticed that not only is Weird Al Yankovic still alive, but he is still making nifty music parodies. His latest one is of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, which WAY calls ‘Word Crimes’ and I admit to liking the lyrics and the clip a lot.

It got me thinking about how many of us now seem to be more inclined to use the written word rather than verbal communication. And a few specific thoughts about this have since been occupying my mind.

For example, I lost count when I was a family lawyer about how many distressed clients would come to me really out of their head about the way in which a letter had been written to them by another lawyer (representing their ex-husband/wife/defacto/etc). To be honest, I probably wrote a few letters like that myself in my early years as a lawyer because it is so easy to be quite blunt and challenging when you have a client describing their interpretation of a situation to you and are paying you to do something about it. Not until later into my career could I recognise that I was contributing to the acrimony between parents by doing so, and that typically the Court takes a fairly dim view of a letter from a lawyer that might end up being annexed to an affidavit and tendered as evidence for some reason. I suppose my message here to lawyers is to think carefully about how we are writing and what purpose are we trying to really achieve…

I also thought about our clients, and I am talking about family law clients, who as parents seem to have overwhelmingly embraced SMS text messages to communicate with one another in relation to parenting arrangements. I think this is a curious phenomenon and am not aware of their being much written about it as a topic. Sure, I get it that when verbal communication is not going, or has not gone, well, then at least SMS provides an option for information to be communicated, but from my perspective is just too easy to rely on SMS as an apparent reliable method of communication. I use the word ‘apparent’ intentionally, as I think we have all experienced as sender and/or receiver, an SMS text message that has been misconstrued either intentionally or by accident. As a lawyer / mediator I have worked with many clients who have had this experience and at times the consequences of misunderstandings or intentional wind-ups can be catastrophic. And yet it could potentially have been completely avoided, or sorted, with a telephone call. But such a call never happened. I think this is an area of growing concern to me and one that I would like to look into.

Lastly, I was thinking about the way which we as lawyers perform our client work with other lawyers, and it seems that we are not as inclined to pick up the telephone and have a conversation with the ‘other lawyer’ in a matter as often as it used to happen. Instead, we seem quite happy to tap away at an email or letter and send it off, happily engaging in a method of communication that is costly for our clients (to draft, type, send, read, respond, etc) when perhaps an opportunity to have short circuited a long series of written communication by having a telephone discussion, has been lost.

Why are we doing this? I suggest that it is not for billing purposes (as I mischievously suggested earlier) but rather because we as lawyers seem to have disconnected from one another in the hustle and bustle and pressures of life as a lawyer in the 21st Century. We perhaps are not able to easily experience the camaraderie and connection with our peers (and opponents) as often as might have been possible in an earlier era, and more than that, as I have indicated earlier in this blog, we (as a society) seem more inclined than ever before to tap away at a computer screen rather than be engaging with others in a more direct and human way. I think this is also of concern when as a profession we are already assumed (generally) to perhaps be lacking in personal skills when working with our clients. I would like to think this is not true, but it does seem that perhaps we are not necessarily heading in the direction that we might want or need to be if we are aiming to deliver services and stay in touch with the people in the world in which we live, and work.

That’s enough for now. Check out WAY’s clip – I think it’s awesome!

Cheers, Mike